Even those who have little interest in the visual arts will recognise a Van Gogh when they see one: the intense and insistent brush strokes; the vivid colours; the sunflowers; the chair; the night sky. And most will know something of the man, that he cut off part of his ear and that he (allegedly) never sold a piece of work in his lifetime. The mythology that surrounds this tortured genius ensures that there will be sufficient interest in a documentary film about the charismatic artist and his work.
Marking 125 years since his self-inflicted death, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has re-hung its large and comprehensive collection of his work, and David Bickerstaff’s detailed film uses this new exhibition to explore his life chronologically, through his art.
A New Way of Seeing is part of a series of films entitled Exhibition On Screen, which gives us all the opportunity of seeing major exhibitions of well-loved artists, and to gain some insight into the work of the curators, as well as their subjects. Whilst applauding the concept, the actual viewing experience is a strangely cold one – and as much as the camera zooms in to highlight every brush stroke, filling the screen with colour, the visceral energy of the paintings is lost.
But this is not just about the art: the story of the life of Vincent Van Gogh interweaves comfortably between the works themselves and the various experts on hand to guide us through. Using a suitably gloomy lookalike, the film takes us on a tour from the small Netherlands town in which he was born, through to London, Paris and Provence. Extracts from the famous letters he wrote to his beloved younger brother Theo are read out in a slightly indeterminable European accent, and these rather clichéd biopic elements are punctuated by face to camera explanations from members of the Van Gogh Museum staff, and even from Theo’s great-grandson. Between them they cover his life and work meticulously, although the pronunciation of his name remains a mystery, with at least five different versions to be heard.
The film is pleasantly straight-forward and resists any temptation to become tricksy or whimsical. If anything it is a little dry and worthy, slightly resembling an educational television documentary, or the kind of narration offered in headphones at the larger galleries. And there is nothing particularly enlightening in it, no special insight or ‘New Way of Seeing’; no eureka moment. But it’s an agreeable enough way of becoming acquainted with one of the greatest artists of all time – you’ve seen the film, now buy the fridge magnet.